Someone once said, “The trouble with being a parent is that by the time you are experienced, you are usually unemployed.” Yet, C.S. Lewis said, “Children are not distractions from more important work. They are the most important work.” I believe both of those statements. Life becomes exciting and dangerous when your most important work is one that requires no experience.
I have thought a lot lately about being a parent, as my daughter recently gave birth to Nora, our 17th grandchild. Nora was unexpected, as my daughter and her husband thought three kids were enough. Nora’s arrival proves, as parents, we should always expect the unexpected. And now that Nora is here, we are so excited to have her as part of our family.
My wife and I are fortunate to have had five kids. Each of their births was unique and special, but there is always something special about the arrival of your first child as you prepare for the first time bringing a new life into the world. I recently watched a fun movie that was a hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival that illustrates the challenges of preparing for a child. In Together Together,[i] Matt (played by Ed Helms), although a single divorcee, decides to become a father. And so, he hires Anna (played by Patti Harrison) to be his child’s surrogate mother. Here is a scene from the film, as well as the trailer:
Preparing to have a child has become more and more complicated, as many so-called experts have various theories of good parenting, especially in those early years. In another scene from Together Together, Matt tries to decide what color to paint his new nursery. He shows the room to Anna, who notices dozens of color swatches taped to the wall. When Anna asks about all the colors, the dialogue goes like this:
Matt: It’s very hard to pick a color for the nursery because there’s a lot riding on it. For example, take orange. Orange is usually good for joy and creativity. But a dark orange can trigger deceit or distrust. Uh, yellow. Usually associated with happiness and intellect, but it can also symbolize sickness or decay. Green makes us think of growth, renewal, safety, nature. Well, guess what? It’s also greed, money, avarice.
Anna: Where are you getting all this?
Matt [picking up a book]: This. ‘Opening the Shades: The Deeper Meaning Behind Colors and the Subconscious Hold They Have on a Developing Mind.’
I was unable to find such a book, but you get the idea.
I also recently rewatched the rom-com Life As We Know It,[ii] in which a married couple is tragically killed in an automobile accident, leaving behind a tiny infant. In the couple’s will, they leave guardianship of the child to the child’s godparents, who are not married and don’t particularly like each other. And neither have had any experience with babies. So in this scene, again relying on a so-called expert, these new parents try to teach the child to “self-soothe”:
I don’t mean to bash child psychologists, as many intelligent people have provided us with valuable tips on improving as parents. But what is suitable for one child might not make a bit of difference in another. For example, as “Anonymous Panda” points out in the recent article, “Most of Your Parenting Choices Don’t Matter,”[iii] as you walk down the street, can you tell who was breast-fed as a baby and who was not?
As our children get older, our job as parents starts to shift. We are less concerned with meeting their physical and safety needs and more about training them to be functioning members of society. With that in mind, I watched King Richard[iv] with mixed emotions. The film is the true story of Venus and Serena Williams and their very involved father. Here is a featurette about the film, which includes two of my favorite scenes from the movie:
While I admire the self-esteem Richard Williams helped develop in each of his daughters, I wonder how I would have felt if my parents had planned out my entire career before I was born. I am sure I would have rebelled and done the exact opposite of their plans. But if the movie accurately portrays the Williams family, it seemed to work well for them. Obviously.
British American journalist Sydney J. Harris said, “The commonest fallacy among women is that simply having children makes one a mother—which is as absurd as believing that having a piano makes one a musician.” I am not the greatest parent (just ask my kids), despite what a T-shirt or mug might say. But after five children and 17 grandchildren, I have come up with some parenting guidelines, many through trial and error (with emphasis on the errors). Here are some of my favorites. Take them for what they are worth, but remember, you get what you pay for.
- Love each of your children equally by treating them differently. I learned this one from my father-in-law, who often quoted John Wilmot, who said, “Before I got married, I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.” I echo those sentiments. Each of our five children came pre-wired, and we soon learned that we had to treat each of them a little differently.
- The way to bring up a child is to start at the bottom. Please don’t misunderstand me here; I am not a big believer in spanking, although there were times when I wanted to beat my children. (Luckily, I never did.) But discipline is a must. Kids need to learn boundaries, and the best way for them to understand them is when parents set them and stick to them. Boundaries are necessary for a child’s safety and to learn how to live in a world surrounded by others. My wife tended to follow Reese Witherspoon’s mantra: “I always say if you aren’t yelling at your kids, you’re not spending enough time with them.” I more often tried to use reason to get my kids to behave. Admittedly, her way was usually more effective than mine, but we were united in believing our children needed discipline regardless of our parenting styles. And that brings me to my following guideline.
- Never let your kids divide and conquer. It’s vital to have good communication between a parent and a child, but it’s more imperative to have good communication between parents. Kids will always try to play parents off of each other. So, when setting boundaries, administering discipline, or consenting to activities, make sure you first discuss it with the other parent. And always keep in mind what French essayist, Joseph Joubout, said: “Children have more need of models than of critics.”
- Train them well enough so they can leave; treat them well enough so they won’t want to. This guideline is a saying by Sir Richard Branson. I also like this quote from Dr. Lyman Abbott: “Parents have a duty to govern their children. But the object of all good government is to prepare the subject for self-government.” So, don’t be a helicopter or bulldozer parent. Several years ago, I read an article in Newsweek on this subject. Part of it stated: “Parents who hover risk crippling their children’s fledging sense of self-sufficiency. Missa Murry Eaton, an assistant professor at Penn State University who studies parent-child relationships, says she’s seen a number of parents who think it’s OK to call their freshman sons or daughters early in the morning to make sure they wake up or check in late at night to see if they’re studying. ‘They don’t allow their children to deal with the consequences of their decisions,’ says Eaton. Children and young adults build up confidence by tackling things that are hard. When they do succeed, they earn real self-esteem.”
- The best thing to spend on your children is your time. This guideline comes from billionaire businessman Arnold Glasgow. In this regard, I love this advice from philosopher John Locke: “A father will do well, as his son grows up, to talk familiarly with him; the sooner you treat him as a man, the sooner he will begin to be one; and if you admit him into serious discourses with you, you will raise his mind above the usual amusements of youth, and those trifling occupations which it is commonly wasted in. Nothing cements and establishes friendship and goodwill so much as confident communication. When your son sees you open your mind to him, he will know he has a friend and a father.”
I could include many additional guidelines in this blog post, but I am sure you are tired of listening to me. The bottom line? The best parents love their children the best way they can. In closing, here is a letter written by Albert Einstein to his daughter:
There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE.
When we learn to give and receive this universal energy, dear Lieserl, we will have affirmed that love conquers all, is able to transcend everything and anything, because love is the quintessence of life.
Love is light that enlightens those who give and receive it.
Love is gravity because it makes some people feel attracted to others.
Love is power because it multiplies the best we have.
Love unfolds and reveals.
Love is the most powerful force there is because it has no limits.
[i] Together Together:
- Production Companies: Wild Idea, Stay Gold Features, and Haven Entertainment
- Director: Nikole Beckwith
- Screenwriter: Nikole Beckwith
- Starring: Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, and Rosalind Chao
- Release date: April 23, 2021
[ii] Life As We Know It:
- Production Companies: Josephson Entertainment, Gold Circle Films, and Village Roadshow Pictures
- Director: Greg Berlanti
- Screenwriter: Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson
- Starring: Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, and Josh Lucas
- Release date: October 8, 2010
[iii] Annonymous Panda, “Most of Your Parenting Choices Don’t Matter,” Medium (January 2, 2021).
[iv] King Richard:
- Production Companies: Overbrook Entertainment, Star Thrower Entertainment, and Warner Bros.
- Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
- Screenwriter: Zach Baylin
- Starring: Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, and Jon Bernthal
- Release date: November 19, 2021